Warriors' Late Rally Stifled in Final Minutes; SNHU downs Merrimack, 71-67
MANCHESTER, N.H. – Down by five late in the second half, the Merrimack men's basketball team nearly completed a rally from what was once a 17-point deficit, but that magic fell short in the waning moments of regulation, as the Warriors fell, 71-67, to Southern New Hampshire in a Northeast-10 Conference matchup on Saturday afternoon at the SNHU Fieldhouse.
Falling to 11-15 overall with an 8-13 mark in league play, Merrimack remains in the hunt for the 10th and final playoff spot in next week's NE-10 Championship. Thanks to an Adelphi win over Le Moyne, the Warriors remain mathematically alive for a postseason berth. The Dolphins hold a one-game lead over the Navy and Gold, but should the two remain tied at the conclusion of the regular season, Merrimack holds the head-to-head tiebreaker.
That means the Warriors' chance at keeping their season alive will come down to the regular season finale on Tuesday night at Hammel Court. Merrimack will entertain nationally ranked Franklin Pierce looking for a win and a Le Moyne loss to earn a spot in the 10-team NE-10 Championship.
Trailing, 63-58, with 4:40 to go, the Warriors fought tooth-and-nail down the stretch to keep it a single-possession game. After a SNHU missed basket, freshman Gelvis Solano (New York, N.Y.) pulled up for a short-range shot to cut the deficit to one, 65-64, as the game entered the final two minutes of regulation.
But on the next Penmen possession, Rodney Sanders drove to the line and jammed it home while drawing a foul. Despite missing the free throw, that pushed the home side ahead by three with 1:30 left in regulation. Each side would proceed to turn the ball over, giving Merrimack a chance to tie it on the following drive.
The Warriors, however, would miss an open game-tying 3-pointer, giving the rock back to the Penmen with 22.5 ticks to go. Following back-to-back timeouts, SNHU eventually made its way to the free throw line to extend its lead. The Warriors would not go quietly, as sophomore Alex Morsey (Beverly, Mass.) came off the bench and drilled a 3-pointer from the corner, making it a two-point game with five seconds left.
That, however, would be the closest Merrimack would get to, as two final freebies from Mike Stys sealed the deal, as the Warriors fell by four to settle for a season split with the Penmen.
"We had our chances, but we lost control of the game with some mental lapses early on," head coach Bert Hammel said afterward. "We can't expect to be able to climb back from those big deficits, especially on the road, every game. The good news is we still have everything to play for on Tuesday night, so we'll regroup and hope for the best then."
The theme for the hosts was their hot shooting, as the Penmen rode a 24-of-48 (.500) clip from the floor to victory. SNHU also managed to shoot 8-of-20 (.400) from long range while finishing 15-of-19 (.789) from the line, as well. Merrimack, meanwhile, shot a respectable 27-of-62 (.435) but managed only five 3-point baskets, finishing 5-for-13 (.385) on the night from long range. The Warriors also finished 8-of-12 (.667) from the line.
Two players finished in double figures for the visitors, as senior Mike Clifford (Danvers, Mass.) led the way with 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting. Behind him, freshman JT Strickland (Laurel, Md.) contributed 16 points and finished a perfect 3-for-3 from downtown and 5-for-7 from the line. Senior Tyler Young (Brooklyn, N.Y.) added eight points and five boards, while junior Kevin Regan (Philadelphia, Pa.) added seven points and six boards, as well.
The host Penmen (15-10, 11-10 NE-10) saw three players register double-digits, as leading scorer B.J. Cardarelli finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds to account for the game's only double-double performance. Aleksandar Dobrovic added 15 points and four assists, while Stys chipped in 10 points and four boards to aid the Penmen. Finally, fellow starter Rodney Sanders also added nine points and four assists for the home side.
Merrimack managed to record a 19-10 edge in points off turnovers, capitalizing on 20 Penmen giveaways compared to 12 of their own. Merrimack was out-rebounded by a 34-30 margin, but still did manage to hold a 36-30 edge in points in the paint thanks to nine offensive boards. Second-chance (7) and fastbreak (4) points were even for each side, while the Penmen bench edged the Warriors in non-starter scoring, finishing with a 15-11 advantage on the night.
Back-to-back 3-pointers ignited the home side early, as the Penmen built a 10-5 lead before a triple from Strickland quieted the crowd. But back-to-back baskets bumped SNHU's lead to nine (17-8) in the early portions of the contest. Minutes later, Solano faked a pass before walking down the baseline for a pretty layup to bring the Warriors to within four (21-17) at the midway point of the first half.
Each side went basket-for-basket until a late spurt by the Penmen. After a Merrimack three-point play, SNHU would answer with one of its own before a Warrior turnover sprung a fastbreak score for the hosts, extending their lead to eight (34-26) with under four minutes to go in the frame.
It would only get worse from there for the Warriors, as SNHU managed to close out the half on a 10-0 run, sending the Penmen into the locker room with a 13-point lead (39-26). Poor shooting doomed the visitors down the stretch in the opening stanza, as Merrimack was held without a basket over the final five minutes of the half. In total, the Warriors shot a respectable 10-of-27 (.370) in the frame, but the Penmen hardly missed, knocking down 14-of-26 (.538) overall while finishing 8-of-10 from the line.
Strickland led all Warriors with eight points in the opening period, while Regan hauled down a team-best four rebounds. Both sides were even in rebounding (16) and turnovers (9), although SNHU held a 22-14 advantage in points scored in the paint, as well as a 9-5 edge in scoring contribution from the bench.
That hot shooting did not stop there for Southern, as the Penmen scored three quick baskets in the first two minutes of the second half to go up by a game-high 17 points (45-28). But Merrimack would catch fire near the 15-minute mark to slice the deficit to single digits with plenty of game to go.
SNHU would retake a double-digit lead near the midway point of the second half on a 3-pointer, only to be answered by a triple from Strickland. A minute and a 3-pointer from each squad later, Merrimack clawed to within eight (59-51), prompting a timeout with 8:31 left in regulation.
A few possessions later, Clifford managed once again to slice the deficit to eight on a physical offensive possession that led to a gutsy layup down low. After a SNHU score, Strickland cut it down to seven thanks to his long range shot, and with under five to go, Regan managed to sink a second-chance shot underneath to slice the deficit all the way down to five (63-58) with 4:40 to go.
But that late magic fell short down the stretch, as the Warriors came to as close as one point but were never able to take the lead, as SNHU managed to hold off the visitors before the final horn sounded.
The Warriors will return home to Hammel Court to round out the regular season on Tuesday, Feb. 26, against Franklin Pierce. Before the contest, the program will honor its three-man senior class as part of Senior Night. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m.